A Fortunate Man – In The Darkroom

Tuesday 20 June 2017 | Author: Michael Pinchbeck| Featured image: Julian Hughes

Last week we spent time in the rehearsal room at New Perspectives devising Fortunate Man. It is a tribute to the book of the same name 50 years on from its publication. It is a tribute to its author John Berger who passed away in January. It is a tribute to Dr John Sassall, its central protagonist, who is torn between being an ‘old, traditional country doctor and a doctor of the future’. Our show starts with some archive footage from 1967 showing an old traditional country doctor doing his rounds in by horse and carriage. He says in his clipped, upper class accent that he can see up to 12 patients a day by travelling this way. It soon reveals itself to be a study of the NHS in 2017 when doctors are under pressure to see up to 36 patients a day.

Image By JoImage by Jo Ferenczi

In total, there are 12 people involved in the project so far. Six writers/performers and six artists/photographers. Different people have been joining us on different days and at the same time pairs of writers and artists are visiting surgeries and health centres to gather research for the project. Taking pictures. Conducting interviews. Writing in waiting rooms. This has been a really interesting collaboration so far, working with artists from different art forms to respond to the book. As Jean Mohr said of his work with John Berger, ‘That spirit of collaboration is rare between a photographer and a writer.’ I have been collaborating with Julian Hughes, our photography mentor, to find the scaffolding for the show. We decided to use photographic terminology to structure the scenes we want to make. Contact is Berger and Mohr discussing the birth of their project. Focus is a series of audio interviews about what it is like to be a doctor today. Negative is the story of how Dr Sassall, a man who set out to help others, is unable to help himself. Development shows him catching water in buckets.

IMG_1838editb&w.jpgImage by Julian Hughes

In the spirit of the book, we want the images the photographers have taken to be in conversation with words the writers have written during their visits to the surgeries. One of my favourite scenes so far features an acoustic piece of guitar music composed by Ryan (one of our writers) that soundtracks the text written by four of the team alongside a projection of images taken by our photographers. The images have been monochromed and formatted to look like the photographs in the book. Mohr and Berger ‘retained the right to the minutiae of the book’s layout. The position of the text on the page. The position of the pictures within the book. The combination of text, page turn, and picture.’ We want to be faithful to this relationship between the paragraph and the photograph. In a 21st century twist, we read these texts live on our mobile phones, ubiquitous in surgery waiting rooms, despite all the laminated signage informing us to switch our phones off. So, what have we learned so far?

Image By MiraImage by Mira Ho

We have learned that doctors don’t take lunch breaks. We have learned that they aim to see every patient within 10 minutes. We have learned that patients don’t always go in to see them with the condition that they really want to talk about so much of that 10 minutes is spent guessing what the real reason for their visit might be. We have learned that it takes the same time to process a film as it does to give a pint of blood. We have learned that the conversation is still the cure in a lot of cases and some patients just want someone to talk to, someone to listen. As John Berger said, ‘If I am a storyteller, it is because I listen.’ We have learned that when you project images onto the folding screens you find in surgeries it looks like pages in a book. We have learned that a photograph of unwashed cups in a kitchen sink tells us more about the NHS than anything we could write. As Jean Mohr said ‘… it became apparent that I could say with one picture what he could articulate only in pages and pages of words.’ We have learned that doctors don’t really want to talk about politics today but we can’t avoid our show being political. We have learned that to understand a context we have to situate ourselves in it. We have learned that doctors love what they do. When asked to name the best thing about their job many of them tell us it is the people or the patients or the place. We have learned that they want to make a difference to peoples’ lives. And they do. We have learned to listen.

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EP 2017 – The Barefoot Doctor

Tuesday 30 May 2017 | Author: Ed Roberts | Images: Susana de Dios

You ever trod on a plug or stepped on a piece of lego? It hurts more than you’d imagine in truth, don’t you think? Well, imagine doing that over and over again. Every step having that level of pain and discomfort. In those circumstances every step an individual takes must be laden with purpose and conviction. You’re either walking towards something or hoping that every time you put one foot in front of the other that the pain you experience is taken away.

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Away from the past. Away from what you know. Away from those who understand why you continue to walk. But for Sassall, this wasn’t the playground. He wasn’t walking away from the bully who stole his marbles or taunted his youthful longing for the sea. In that moment walking away would be wise, commendable and mature. But Sassall’s issues are not so simple and infantile.

Yet, the way he addresses the situation is to not address it at all. To pretend the trauma just isn’t there and simply “walk away”. The man a community turned to in their hours of need was incapable of coming to his own aid. This is a wound he can not cauterize, stitch or plaster up. And so, he walks. And so the pain festers. The squalor of the mind under lock and key.

The grief that becomes pain, that becomes depression, that becomes a numbness to life, that becomes…

1_Sassall_man I loved

Dr John Sassall died in china in 1982. He’s been learning the ways of the traditional barefoot doctor. Although the details of his last moments and hours are lost, this is where his mortal story ends, his legacy as the every man’s Faust of the 20th century lives on in the words and images of Berger and Mohr. The paradox of A Fortunate Man is how Sassall acts as an example to be lauded and a warning to be met with caution. The General Practitioner whose search for the universal helped all those around him, but whose existentialism made the final chapter of his story one of isolation, loss and heartbreak. Learn from Sassall, accept yourself. Accept who you are, what being you means and go out there… and be happy.

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EP 2017 – Blood – Gallery

On 11 March, EP members Suzanne Reynolds and Susana de Dios to a trip with Julian Hughes to a Nottingham Blood Centre to document Julian’s blood donation. Susana de Dios took the photos in this gallery, and the group then wrote responses to the images based on parallels found in John Berger’s 1967 novel A Fortunate Man. You can find a blog post about this experience written by Suzanne Reynolds here.

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“I’ll have your hand” AFM: ‘We give the doctor access to our bodies. Apart from the doctor, we only grant such access voluntarily to lovers – and many are frightened to do even this. Yet the doctor is a comparative stranger… what can such intimacy mean?’

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AFM: ‘It is as though when he talks or listens to a patient, he is also touching them with his hand so as to be less likely to misunderstand: and it is as though, when he is physically examining a patient, they were also conversing.’

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AFM: ‘The function of fraternity is recognition. This individual and closely intimate recognition is required on both a physical and psychological level. On the former it constitutes the art of diagnosis.[…] On the psychological level recognition means support.’

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“Keep your arm warm. The warmer you are, the better it will flow!” AFM: ‘The air is cold. The floorboards are cold. It is perhaps this coldness which sharpens the tang of the hot cup of tea.’

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“Are you alright? Just pop your head back for me” AFM: ‘That’s where I live, where you are putting the needle in.’ ‘I know,’ Sassall said, ‘I know what it feels like.’

EP 2017 – Blood

Thursday 11 May | Author: Suzanne Reynolds | Featured Image: Susana de Dios

Blood. We all have it; I guess it is one of those commonalities that we take for granted – well, at least until we need a blood transfusion. There we are, in an emergency situation, haemorrhaging following childbirth, as I did, or through loss of blood caused by a road collision; whatever the reason is for your need, you can be sure that someone here, in a Blood Centre such as this on North Church Street right in the centre of Nottingham, will have enabled that to happen – simply by voluntarily donating one pint of their blood.

It is to witness one of these selfless acts, by regular blood donor Julian Hughes – along with photographer Susana de Dios – that we are here, as part of our research towards an exciting theatre project with New Perspectives based on John Berger’s A Fortunate Man – The Story of a Country Doctor, first published in 1967.  This research, with a host of co-collaborators from a range of artistic disciplines, will lead to a new piece of theatre that will first be shared at Lakeside in June as part of the NRTF conference.  One of the key aims of this timely research is to consider the state of the National Health Service fifty years on.jos heartAn image from Julian’s Friends, Lovers and Strangers project

You can sense my hesitation…it’s true, both Susana and I don’t like needles, so volunteering to observe Julian donating blood at least averts both our minds from what we are about to witness; except that, just as we are ushered towards a private meeting room, we are asked, quite rightly to leave, as this part is confidential. Julian laughs later as he tells us there are many reasons why people cannot give blood on that particular day – some of which you will know, I’m sure.  He also tells us that he gets nervous, even now – even though he has been donating blood for over ten years; his first donation being given on February 14th.  He invited, as part of a photography project, people that he knew for a pint, only for them to discover that they were going to give a pint, rather than drink one; many of these are still regular blood donors.

They, like Julian, having concluded their confidential meeting, will be ushered into a bright and relatively noisy space where each donor can see each other – it is not as I expected at all – not a curtain in sight!  He is invited to sit in a chair that is capable of being tipped right back; almost like a bucket seat that was in our red Ford Escort, back in the day when hubby and I were dating (I’ve learnt, people don’t call it ‘courting’ any more – it seems people seem to assume that you are some kind of offender!).  Anyway, whilst this Blood Donor Centre is busy, I am not convinced that making yourself as vulnerable as this is a precursor to the development of romantic relationships – although Julian assures us that people do talk over their tea, coffee and nibbles that they have afterwards, but he reckons he is about twenty minutes away from that currently.

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“Are you alright? Just pop your head back for me” AFM: ‘That’s where I live, where you are putting the needle in.’ ‘I know,’ Sassall said, ‘I know what it feels like.’

Meanwhile, the needle, as it goes in, is described as somewhat “irritating” and “scratchy” – although I observe that his feet are no longer twitching quite so much with what I can only suppose to be indicative of a level of anxiety; think Jeremy Kyle on one of the many TV screens has helped to help take his mind off it. He laughs as he tells us, he once saw a snake being attacked by a mongoose as he gave blood, which had made him laugh and took his mind off the needled – he went on to state that the particular shade of blue that is in the room is comforting to him, as it reminds him of “engineering blue” (his dad worked as an engineer).

The nurse also helps to keep him chatting, as Susana moves effortlessly around the space, creating a photographic record of the event, as the nurse continues to chat, she then asks him about the project – at this, he visibly relaxes. She is very encouraging about the project, and is herself aware of the book; she goes on to say things like:

“You could do with staying a day here…see how it all works!”

“Every day is a different day; we get all walks of people here.”

With Julian’s blood flowing, she sets an alarm which beeps, slowly at first, but quite soon becomes faster and faster, until there is an audible increase in strength and volume, at which point, the nurse returns and informs him that he is all done:

“Seven minutes, that’s quick!”, she states.

Julian is astonished, as he tells us he usually finds the room quite cool, but today, as it is warmer, it seems to have “helped my blood flow quicker”.

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The needle is removed, swiftly and with precision, and soon we are all sat around in a comfy area surrounded by an array of sweet and salty snacks, and where cups of tea and coffee are drunk in a relaxed atmosphere where there must be a real sense of relief, and what I imagine to be a recognition of ‘doing good’. (Maybe I should check whether I am able to give blood myself now, having been told that because I had a blood transfusion prior to blood being tested for Variant CJD, that I would not be able to; as medicated as I am due to chronic pain and fibromyalgia, I think this sense of giving something back could only be a good thing. Those who know me will already know that I can indeed be a bit of a mad cow!)

We depart the Blood Centre once Julian feels up to it, and decamp to a local coffee shop where we continue to talk about Berger and Mohr’s legacy – their collaboration, and how we might be able to bring A Fortunate Man to the stage in a way that does this text, required reading for every would-be GP, justice; especially as we approach a General Election where the NHS could well be a key factor in how people might choose to use their vote.

After this session the EP members paired images with quotes from John Berger’s novel. Visit the full gallery here.

EP 2017 – Session 1

Saturday 22 April | Author: Suzanne Reynolds | Featured image: Mira Ho

And, so it began…

I can’t believe I’m here; here amongst these amazing, talented people – as part of this team. We are here, at Nottingham Lakeside Arts, getting to know more about the A Fortunate Man project from Jack McNamara, Artistic Director of New Perspectives, Michael Pinchbeck, Theatre Maker, and Julian Hughes, Photographer – who each tell us about how long they had been planning to produce a piece of theatre based on A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor – with words by John Berger, and photographs by Jean Mohr – and how they saw it being created.

Having read the book a number of times in preparation, recognising with each reading the sheer beauty and wonder of this text and its quietly balanced photography – each image adding layer upon layer of depth to Berger’s beautiful language, I was excited to begin.

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Photo by Susana de Dios and Ed Roberts

Never having worked in collaboration before, I was excited at the prospect of a new
adventure; they teamed each writer with a photographer and, before we knew it, we were off outside, exploring Lakeside, acting as ethnographers, detailers of lives, of images we saw, created through a lens – all the time, interacting with the space that was all around us. Whilst my co-collaborator utilised her skills as a photographer, producing wonderful images where the book became located in this landscape, I took to seating myself in the sunshine on a bench by the lake, and wrote soundscapes, attempting to capture the words, the sounds, the lives going on around me.

When we went back into the Learning Room, each group talked about how they had worked together, and showed what they had produced in response to this busy place, full of families at play, eating ice-creams, or to the architecture or natural elements of this place. It was so exciting to see and hear about what each group had done, and hearing and seeing these responses has just served to inspire me even more: I want to be able to be part of a team that does this book justice, and having started our detective journey, I have no doubt that what we will come up with, under Michael and Julian’s direction, will enable and empower us to offer a piece that is both creative as well as innovative – even to the way that it may be staged.

Workshop 1

Images by Julian Hughes

As a writer (I am actually calling myself that, for the first time), I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to have this opportunity and to be a part of such a wonderful, inspiring and supportive team. And, whilst this might be my first ever blog, I do sincerely hope that you will come along this journey with us – maybe by reading the book, or becoming an ethnographer, a detective yourself, you never know where your own creative spark may come from! Mine was in response to a call out for
Emerging Artists – maybe next time, it could be you…

Read more on the project in Michael Pinchbeck’s latest blog.

HAUNTS: Week 2

Writer Susie Hennessy muses on week 2 of our HAUNTS project. In this session the writers retraced audio walks which had been made from a route created in the very first session.

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The general area of the initial walks

Saturday 25th March, 2017  |  Author: Susie Hennessy

Fresh from our first week’s creative endeavours (and with many tales of ingenious solutions to sound engineering incompetence to share), the Haunts team arrived at New Perspectives base camp this morning, armed with a newly-forged collection of Nottingham-based audio walks, and keen to discover the extent to which these fruits of our labours would function interactively. Since exploring the Nottingham cityscape last Saturday (quite in spite of the inclement weather), my fellow writers and I have been busy designing and recording these pieces, with the intention of documenting our perceptions of three separate routes through the bustling town centre, whilst simultaneously guiding our listeners in such a way that they might retrace our footsteps. The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating, and so it was necessary for us to return to the scene of last week’s crime (?) this afternoon, so that we could all ‘plug in’ to each other’s works, in turn, and test our narrative and navigational skills, as well as our nerves.

Nottingham Contemporary Museum, NottinghamThere is something both exhilarating and terrifying about sharing a fledgling written work with others, and so, after a short tram ride (magnificent interlude for this humble Lincolnite) from NP to Nottingham Contemporary (the starting point for each of our walks), we assembled, loaded up the relevant tracks on our respective electronic devices, and donned earphones, all with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I noticed, before we even set out on the first walk, that I felt a real sense of responsibility, not only as a writer who would, essentially, instruct my ‘audience’ through an incredibly busy city (today’s weather bringing with it a far greater flurry of animation and merriment than we saw last week), but also as a listener, keen to follow the correct path, and to avoid making a wrong turn. Added to this, I was somewhat apprehensive about the attention that a lost soul, wandering about in headphoned isolation, disconnected from the outside world, might attract in an urban environment, where folk going about their business, understandably, take none-too- kindly to the distracted and the disorientated stumbling blindly into their paths. As we embarked on the first walk, however, my fears were quickly quelled, and I actually found a real sense of unity (as well as of, paradoxically, solitude) in the knowledge that others were taking this quite remarkable journey with me. As we progressed through this afternoon’s sequence of experiences, as a group, we were all keenly aware that we had been permitted the luxury of viewing the landscape through the eyes of others, and found it fascinating to consider the ways in which this particular medium can guide collective vision, regardless of the fact that it is, in many ways, subject to the vagaries of a completely spontaneous environment (which we found often adds something quite wonderful, and unexpected, to the pre-recorded, set text).

Whilst I know that comparison of self to others is a deadly trap to be avoided at all costs, I must admit that I found myself to be in awe of the rich characterisation that defined the first two pieces we listened to this afternoon (I drew the short straw and found myself last on the playlist!), and of the very precise and evocative stories that both communicated to their audiences. As we set the wheels of my walk in motion, I realised that my narrative could have been less ‘tour guide-esque’, and more playful in places, although I was heartened, later on, to hear that the philosophical reflections I included in the script had served to shape its character. On a practical note, I think we all found, as the works went from page to stage, that there were moments where our ‘instructions’ to the listener might have been a little clearer, and so we all reaped some very tangible benefits from our maiden voyage together. There can be no doubt that we all approached this task completely differently, and that we each have our own unique concerns and insights that we will be able to draw upon, not only in our individual creative work, but also in our collaboration with one another, which, I might add, felt organic and fruitful at the end of today’s session, as we discussed each of our pieces in turn. As an aspiring writer and actor who has recently emerged from a detour of several years in academia, I am trying to shake off my objective, ‘teacherly’ voice (the voice that I recognised only too clearly in my audio walk today), and find a literary voice that is more authentically mine; as this project finds me, happily, surrounded by writers who are skilled in the arts of writing poetry, drama, and fiction, it is already becoming clear that Haunts has presented me with an invaluable opportunity to develop my own writing style, whilst learning from, and with, likeminded others.

Marital problems, Brexit and insect extermination – rich content for children’s theatre

As New Perspective’s production of the world famous picture book, The Giant Jam Sandwich makes its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next week, the company’s Artistic Director, Jack McNamara – who adapted the book for stage – says that the key to successful children’s theatre is making the content as rich and complex as that for adult audiences. 

The world of children’s picture books is a place where imaginations go into overdrive, not only for readers but for those of us constantly looking for new sources to turn into theatre.

Like the best of children’s writing, we make sure our theatre for children doesn’t shy away from looking at issues in depth, even if that involves handling some potentially tricky themes.

Even a book as joyous and exuberant as The Giant Jam Sandwich, which presents a conflict between a community of villagers and a swarm of wasps, there are complex themes that we found worth mining. There is the matter of foreign invasion which, in the world today, feels impossible to ignore.

Without getting heavy handed, the story gave us an opportunity to explore negative attitudes towards outsiders. While the wasps in the book are generally villainous, in our production we tried to show things from their point of view and even have a moment where a character has a moral crisis about trapping them. We also introduce a story-line about the protagonist’s broken down marriage which haunts him throughout the story.

Of course we are sensitive to the fact that some children will be too young to understand divorce or may even be a little too close to that subject. But we present the story positively, effectively showing that marriage isn’t the only thing that can make adults happy! We’re not here to preach traditional values; we would rather reassure kids that people and their different lives are worth celebrating. On tour earlier this year, children responded in a completely mature way to that.

By taking this approach, I believe we do justice to the style of John Vernon Lord’s and Janet Burroway’s original book, which is beautifully messy and human, rather than sanitised. Vernon Lord himself is a big fan of this first production of his book, claiming: “I enjoyed it from beginning to end… a very clever way of extending the story.” He was also entirely sympathetic to the resonances with what is happening in the UK today. The private notebook of illustrations that he showed me were full of dazzling and scathing sketches of some of the ridiculous politicians we are all putting up with at the moment.

At their best, children’s books tell brilliantly concise stories in strange and provocative ways. Whether that is the tongue-twisting brilliance of Dr Seuss, the dry minimalism of Jon Klassen, or the outrageous humour of Babette Cole. These artists, among many others in this area, push their form as far as they can and bring readers, old and young, with them.

But work for children has often been connected to an avant-garde sensibility. The composer Carl Stalling’s music for the early Warner Brothers cartoons is considered some of the most progressive modern composition of its time; full of stop-start rhythms and bouncing between genres.

Inspired by all these great innovators, we believe that work for children should be as daring and brilliant as anything made for adults. That also means investing as much into our design, casting and dramaturgy as we would for our ‘grown-up’ work. With creativity being stamped out of the curriculum, it feels like a particularly crucial time to take children and their imaginations as seriously as we can.

The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord & Janet Burroway, and adapted for the stage by Jack McNamara, runs at Pleasance Above at the Pleasance Courtyard, from 2 – 28 August (not including 14 August) at 10.20am daily. Book tickets here or phone Box Office: 0131 556 6550

To book review tickets for this show please contact the Pleasance Press Office: 0131 556 6558 | press@pleasance.co.uk

photo: L-R Jack McNamara (Artistic Director, New Perspectives), John Vernon Lord (illustrator and author)